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Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am not trying to indicate that, because my right honourable friend Mr. Waldegrave took that view almost three years ago, it is the only basis for it. We have looked to see how the director general has proceeded and in our view he has done extremely well. As Mr. Waldegrave's successor said:


Our view in 1996 is that that is a valid assessment of the way in which the director general has taken up and followed through his responsibilities.

Railway Heritage Bill

3.4 p.m.

Lord Finsberg: My Lords, I understand that no amendments have been set down to this Bill and that no noble Lord has indicated a wish to move a manuscript amendment or to speak in Committee. Therefore, unless any noble Lord objects, I beg to move that the order of commitment be discharged.

Moved, That the order of commitment be discharged.--(Lord Finsberg.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Sexual Offences (Conspiracy and Incitement) Bill

Read a third time, and passed.

Deregulation (Wireless Telegraphy) Order 1996

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of National Heritage (Lord Inglewood) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th June be approved [25th Report from the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee].

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The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order is the first to be made by my department under the powers provided in the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. It makes two changes to existing legislation. It abolishes the requirements for television dealers to register with the BBC and for them to hold and pay a fee for a dealer demonstration licence. Necessary protection for the television licensing system is maintained by retaining the requirement for dealers to notify all sales and rentals to the BBC. The Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee has reported that the order meets the requirements of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Act 1994. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 4th June be approved [25th Report from the Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee].--(Lord Inglewood.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Asylum and Immigration Bill

3.6 p.m.

Proceedings after Third Reading resumed.

Clause 9 [Entitlement to housing accommodation and assistance]:

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Boston of Faversham): My Lords, I should inform the House that if Amendment No. 1 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendment No. 2.

Earl Russell moved Amendment No. 1:


Page 7, line 14, leave out subsection (1).

The noble Earl said: My Lords, Amendment No. 1 seeks to leave out subsection (1) from Clause 9. The effect of that subsection, as amended by the Government yesterday, is to provide that anyone in the UK who is subject to immigration control shall not be eligible for any local authority tenancy. We deal here with local authority tenancies, not with the more general homelessness responsibilities on which the House has already voted.

A person is not allowed local authority housing unless he is of a class specified by the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State has not yet specified any classes. We do not know when the Secretary of State will specify any classes or, indeed, whether he is going to do so. Therefore, it becomes vital to ask what the commencement date of the clause will be. If it has a commencement date before the statutory instrument is published, we shall have a much wider restriction than the House at earlier stages of the Bill believed to be the case. If the provision does not come into effect until after the publication of the statutory instrument specifying which classes the Secretary of State intends to exclude, the Bill will come near to leap-frogging the Housing Bill, which repeals this clause altogether and is about to begin its Report stage in your Lordships' House.

It is rather unusual to have a clause in a Bill repealed by another Bill that is already progressing through the second House. I believe the reason for that was to

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provide help as regards the anomalous situation in which local authorities find themselves, created by the rather unplanned nature of the Government's timing. By stopping housing benefit without stopping local authority obligations to house, the Government place a considerable and unforeseen financial burden on local authorities. That is not a particularly well-planned piece of legislative timing.

There have been negotiations between the Government and local authority associations for government help to local authorities, but that appears to have been going wrong. I wish to ask the Minister, first, whether any progress has been made on those negotiations and, secondly, whether any local authority has yet received one penny under those arrangements. Of course, the burden of handling asylum seekers who are homeless falls particularly on a very limited number of London local authorities and the burden on them is very severe.

In this Chamber I have referred already to a letter which I have received from the Director of Housing and Social Services for the London Borough of Sutton. He tells me that the 5 per cent. threshold which local authority spending must cross before it becomes eligible for any help is 5 per cent. of the total standard spending assessment for social services as a whole. That is not a fence; it is a Himalaya which no local authority can jump.

He tells me also that help under the Children Act is not being allowed to be extended to the families in order to keep them together. In other words, it will lead to children being taken into care, which will of course immensely multiply the cost to taxpayers, of whom I remind the Minister I am one.

Also, when families break up, as they sadly do under stress, the obligation to help is extended to only the one member of the family who has made the claim. That falls particularly severely on women who have been victims of domestic violence who leave their violent partners and find that they are deprived of any help whatever. Those are the technical points.

But the issues in this clause go a great deal wider than that. Under Article 21 of the UN convention on refugees it is provided that, as regards housing, the contracting states shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory treatment as favourable as possible and, in any event, not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances. I cannot see how the Government's action can in any way be brought within the scope of that article. In passing, I must once again remind the House that that convention is incorporated by Section 2 of the Asylum and Immigration Appeals Act 1993 so that that is something of which British law may take notice.

I believe that this is yet another case in which the Government are in breach of their international obligations. It is also another instance in which we have a recent Court of Appeal judgment. That Court of Appeal judgment would be plainly repealed by the passage of this clause. Therefore, the first legal point which arises is that it seems that local authorities anticipated the commencement of this Act.

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This is becoming a sadly familiar story. I believe that it is part of the increasing ignorance of parliamentary form which is sadly common in the country as a whole. Will the Government issue guidance to make it plain that Acts of Parliament do not come into force until they have had three Readings in both Houses and have received Royal Assent? I hope that that is at least one matter on which we all agree.

Again in relation to the case heard in the Court of Appeal on 25th June, the issue was in effect one of destitution. The Department of the Environment commenting on the case in the Guardian misled the Guardian reporter, no doubt inadvertently. The Department of the Environment complained that financial need by itself had been found to be a criterion of vulnerability. It has not. Lord Justice Neill spelt that out in words of one syllable. At page 22 of the judgment--and this is the one judge in the other case who judged with the Government--he said:


    "I can take the circumstances of Miss Araya as an example. She has no capital. She has no income. She is prohibited from obtaining employment and therefore has no opportunity of earning any money. She has no family or friends in this country ... she has no knowledge of the English language. Apart from any emergency accommodation which has been made available to her, she is homeless".

Therefore, the priority need consists not merely of a lack of money but of a combination of a lack of money with the sheer impossibility of rectifying that situation. If that is not priority need, I do not know what is.

That situation has been putting a great burden on innumerable voluntary organisations of many kinds which have been struggling to cope with the chaos that has been created. In that context, I must join with what my noble friend Lady Williams of Crosby said yesterday about how much we owe to the role of the churches. They have been taking in people in church halls and keeping them out of the rain and frost when perhaps otherwise they would have died. It is a matter of profound gratitude that the Church has not passed by on the other side.

But the overcrowding has been gross. There have been cases of five people having to share one blanket. The churches need their halls, especially at weekends. We cannot expect the churches to do without them for ever. Families and communities again have been trying to take their share of the burden. In one case, a Sudanese women gave refuge to 20 people in her small flat. You cannot go on with that for ever.

I can think of no category of people to whom I have less sense of obligation than I have to convicted terrorists. But we would not treat convicted terrorists like that. We feed them and give them shelter. I do not think that any noble Lord would propose to change that.

I do not see how we can continue to treat people in that way. I believe that it is something that no civilised country should tolerate. Even if the claimants were bogus, no civilised country should tolerate that treatment; but many of them are not bogus. What must they think of this country? I beg to move.

2 Jul 1996 : Column 1309

3.15 p.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Social Security (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish): My Lords, I certainly had a feeling of deja vu when I saw this amendment on the Marshalled List because it has been considered already in Committee and on Report. I do not have a great deal that is new to say although I congratulate the noble Earl on finding something new to say by the simple expedient of not actually speaking directly to the amendment. The amendment removes a subsection of the clause which says that long-term council housing will not be available for asylum seekers, but the noble Earl strayed into the rest of the clause and discussed points on homelessness. However, in a spirit of good humour and good relations, I shall attempt to answer the points which he raised, but I shall not do so at great length because I should then be going very wide of the amendment.

As regards the amendment itself, social housing, council housing and so on is a very valuable asset. As I have told your Lordships before, when people acquire the tenancy of a council house, they gain housing for life. They can stay in it for as long as they wish and they acquire succession rights whereby they can pass on the tenancy to a close relative. They obtain certain rights of assignment. They can exchange that property for a property acquired by another tenant elsewhere and, of course, they acquire the right to buy.

We are concerned that such housing should go to those with a clearly established long-term need--people who have the right to remain indefinitely in this country. Those are the groups of people to whom we propose to give entitlement under the homelessness legislation. Perhaps I may remind your Lordships that those are the classes of persons who will be eligible to be considered on the housing list along with all the other British citizens.

Such groups will be refugees; in other words, those who have been granted refugee status. I should point out to the House that seven out of 100 applicants for asylum actually fall into that category. Persons granted exceptional leave to remain will also be in those groups and, similarly, the figure in that respect is 16 out of every 100. Finally, the other group of persons, quite aside from asylum seekers, are those with indefinite leave to remain. Under the Immigration Rules, those people will actually be allowed to apply for and obtain long-term council housing.

I am sure that all noble Lords are in complete agreement that those people ought to be treated in the way that I have just suggested. However, the question remains: should people whose needs are at present quite clearly only temporary be given access to long-term social housing? I do not believe that they should until their claim has been established. I should remind your Lordships that only a tiny minority of such claims are established. I do not believe that they should be given access to council housing, which is what the noble Earl's amendment would do. It would give people whose right to be here is still very much in question that entitlement. Indeed, if one looks at the statistics, one certainly sees that the majority will eventually be found to have no right to be here. The noble Earl's amendment would give all those people the right to join the list for long-term housing.

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We do not believe that housing created with taxpayers' money ought to be used in that way. There are plenty of people, especially in those areas of the country where asylum seekers turn up in large numbers, who are looking for long-term social housing--British citizens and indeed the other categories of immigrants that I have mentioned. Therefore, we believe that social housing ought to be kept for those groups of people; namely, British citizens and the immigrants who have been recognised as refugees or given exceptional leave to remain. That is my defence for the subsection. The noble Earl seeks to strike it out of the legislation but, to be honest, he did not really argue on that basis. He talked about other parts of the clause which deal with homelessness.

I turn now the noble Earl's questions. He said that he did not know when the Secretary of State would specify the classes of people. I should point out to the noble Earl that we shall certainly not commence the provisions in the clause until the order is in place, which will be about three weeks later. The Bill will not leap-frog the Housing Bill, which will not be commenced until well into the autumn; whereas, as long as Parliament is willing and the other place does whatever it has to do as regards the amendments which your Lordships have proposed to the Bill, we hope to put the legislation now before the House into effect as soon as possible. As I said, there will be no leap-frogging.

As far as concerns negotiations with local authorities, with the Court of Appeal decision there is no need for grant on homelessness costs because, as I indicated previously, those people who were denied benefit from February, and those who did not apply but can show that they would have done so if the rules had not been changed by this House and the other place, will be eligible for housing benefit again. Therefore, the question of homelessness costs would not arise. However, we still intend to pay grant in respect of costs under the Children Act. We shall be laying a special grant report about that in the autumn.

I turn now to the matter of the threshold. I believe that I have answered the question before. Such thresholds are normal in many grant regimes. Indeed, this grant follows many of the principles of the Bellwin formula grant regime. It seems to me that it is only right and proper for there to be some incentive for local authorities to be prudent with public money. If they received a 100 per cent. grant, there would be no real incentive for them to be careful with public money. Therefore, we believe that it is important to have thresholds in this respect, as we do with many other grants.

As regards the duty to take children into care, I should point out to the House that there is no duty as such. However, a local authority has the option of supporting a whole family in a house. It is within the local authority's discretion to do so, if it feels that that is the best way to honour its obligations under the Children Act.

There is also the question of local authorities not knowing how Parliament works. Perhaps professors of history--dare I say it?--should spend a little more time with their students trying to explain to them how Parliament works so that those who eventually become journalists, for example, will at least have a working

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knowledge of it and will therefore be able to inform the public. I do not believe that local authorities anticipating parliamentary decisions is an issue that falls under housing allocation. The Department of the Environment is currently considering whether the definition of "priority need" should be reviewed in the light of the second Appeal Court decision. I refer to the decision made last week rather than the one of Friday 21st June. However, I do not wish to say anything further in that respect because I understand that the authorities are still considering whether to appeal to the Appellate Committee of your Lordships' House.

I return now to the amendment before us. I believe that I have made my case on a number of occasions. Long-term social housing should go to people with a long-term and established right to remain in this country. With that explanation, and bearing in mind that I have answered some of his questions which do not actually relate to the amendment, I hope that the noble Earl will feel able to withdraw his amendment.


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